The missed opportunity for marketing


A few months ago, everything changed overnight. The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to find new ways to engage with customers, to market and sell their products and services. I helped a few of them to analyse and re-design their go-to-market. What I’ve seen emerging from their proposed recovery marketing plans made me think about the significant risk companies could face by implementing the centralised and very tactical approaches many have chosen.

In a crisis like this one, you usually focus on a few things:

–         A fast decision-making team that is tactical in firefighting while is defining a shared vision, that keeps people together and focused, and a strategy to drive actions in alignment with other functions

–         A robust situational awareness, through a defined information flow from the field to the management team and vice versa, to monitor possible escalation of the emergency and keep people on the same page

–         Local autonomy, to respond as fast as possible to specific priorities, guided by the shared vision

After the understandable first confused reaction, and a second phase where it’s imperative to focus on the here and now, it comes the time for going back to a longer-term vision. A common error I’ve seen in many “recovery plans” that should cover at least the next 6 to 12 months is to fill them with a lot of tactical activities, sometimes even disconnected from each other. By completely forgetting the strategy, I think marketers are missing a huge opportunity to support the business in the exact moment when, because sales are limited in their interaction with customers and digitalisation of relationships is surging,  the need for their help is stronger than ever. Let me dig a bit more into how I see things evolving and how it could be different.

The first days: budgeting and re-budgeting

Exhibitions, live seminars, in-person training, user meetings and conferences are all gone, for the entire year. Some of them, maybe forever. Physical events have always been costly, and they usually represent quite a significant portion of the marketing budget in a BtoB company.

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While looking for savings, this money is an easy target. Marketing managers are, of course, trying to protect at least part of their budget. Still, to win the internal fight for the re-allocation of resources, solid business justifications are needed. The result is endless meetings being called day after day, till late at night, to review again and again the plan while field managers are rushing to pull together scenarios without the time to make enough analysis. The teams I’ve interviewed are strongly frustrated, and they generally fear to become the scapegoat when such actions do not deliver enough results. Does it sound familiar?

Working on the budget is essential, but my impression was that those discussions were all starting from the money and moving immediately into activities. The questions asked to the teams were always like “what we can do?”, “what we can cancel?”, “what is not yet committed?”, “What can be moved later?”, “How much can you give back to corporate for a digital campaign?”. Again, does it sound familiar? The motto now is  “let’s go digital”, with the idea that digital is cheaper and anyhow is the only thing that is possible to do. The outcome of such a rush is new plans with a proliferation of webinars, digital advertising and virtual conferences. Everybody has one, and the competition is rising in the digital space. I also bet some of them will be quite successful in attracting people. I’m curious to see if real results will follow because I feel that in this rush towards doing something, many have missed a few quite essential points.

Asking the right questions

I’m not saying that a webinar series is a wrong activity to put in a plan. I just want to understand the why. Which purpose is this activity serving and how does it fit into a larger picture? In this sense, “What we can do?” is not a wrong question, is just incomplete. We should ask something like “What we can do to support sales to having conversations with 20 customers’ executives about this specific key business initiative in the next nine months”, or “what we can do to facilitate sales to engage 50 new customers in the next three months”. List the sales goals and find ways to support them with multiple activities that reinforce and amplify each other.

I always start with the sales goals because I think that marketing and sales are the two sides of the same coin. While sales are oriented to close the deals and to reach their quarterly targets, marketing has a longer view. Now sales are limited in the activities they can perform with customers, so marketing should support the process even more by working on brand positioning, awareness, and consideration, and maybe leads. The focus is to facilitate the sales team to engage customers in meaningful conversations, speeding up the sales process.

By the way: Yes, I’ve said MAYBE leads. In many companies, this is not what sales need. That’s why another critical question is always “where the sales process needs more support from marketing?”. I’m telling it because I made this mistake in the past, and I was so frustrated by the fact that my team was spitting blood to reach lead generation targets and then sales were not managing them. I surveyed regional sales directors and sales managers, so I’ve found out that just a few of them were interested in leads. I was providing my internal customer with a product they did not need.

At that time, I also thought that my goal was indeed to generate 500 leads or 20 PR impressions per month. I was wrong. These could be handy and measurable indicators of performances, but they are not goals. If you can find other indicators that give a better measure of how much marketing is contributing to the company’s success and growth, use them.

What I’ve learned over time is that If you start asking the right questions, to yourself and your team, you will end up with a very effective marketing plan that will impact your company’s performance.

The underestimated piece of the “let’s go digital” puzzle

Let’s go back to our plan, now full of digital activities. Is it manageable? I am a big fan of digital marketing, and I believe that digitalisation can make a massive difference in these days, but the cost and the effort of doing that are far higher than many people think. I’m not talking about the infrastructure: there are so many options today that the main hurdle I see is to be able to sell internally the vision on why you need to spend money on marketing automation. You need funds and an executive sponsor to implement it.

To find the right expertise, above all outside of a few big cities, could be a more significant challenge. Maybe remote working can help with that, and this pandemic helped many companies to understand that remote working is possible and could be productive. I’ve written an article on my experience.

Here I want to focus on a vast, underestimated weakness I’ve seen in many of the new “digital marketing plans”: the content. It’s written everywhere in books and articles, and despite that is still so neglected. One reason is that content creation requires a lot of effort and creativity (as you want original ones). Marketing teams have a lot of SEO specialists, social media managers, designers… but they lack people able to take the internal products messages and translate them into something that is matching the industries’ business initiatives and use the right jargon. A lot of the internal concepts and ideas just get lost in translation and sound not so great to the customer. Good content creation starts from an excellent messaging document, and it can take months to be agreed among all the internal stakeholders. It delivers the messages in different ways, according to the personas you want to reach and the sales stages they fit in. That’s the base you will use to create videos, blog posts, articles, customer testimonials, presentations, post for LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever social media you think is right for your target audience. Without it, you will reinvent the wheel every time, and you will never reach a homogeneity of messages that is paramount to have a single voice on the market.

 Don’t miss the opportunity

Things are going to be tough. Some of the changes forced by the pandemic are here to stay: people will work more from home, will travel less, will meet more online. Customers were already looking online to collect information and shape their decisions before contacting a vendor, and now this trend will be reinforced.

Marketing can play such an essential role in growing the business in this situation. I think that if we build a plan that is answering the right questions, integrated with sales objectives, and we work on the content and the audience before thinking about how to deliver it, the level of contribution will be soon evident.